Arsenal – Newcastle United: Ramsey revels in routine Arsenal victory (2-0)
In Monday night’s quiet clash between the Premier League’s number five and fourteen, there was plenty at stake. Newcastle proved to be a tough hurdle to overcome, as they had been for many other top sides this season, but once Arsenal found their flow, they were little match for Unai Emery’s men.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
It had been eighteen days since Arsenal’s last competitive encounter. From the last eleven, which beat Stade Rennais 3-0 in the Europa League, not a whole lot had changed. Laurent Koscielny, Granit Xhaka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were all away from the side due to injury or illness, with Aubameyang managing to make the bench. In their places came Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Mattéo Guendouzi and Alex Iwobi. The back three remained, albeit in a 3-4-3 shape as opposed to the previous 3-4-1-2 setup.
Rafa Benítez made one small adjustment to the side he deployed in their previous outing, a 2-2 draw away to Bournemouth. This meant Jamaal Lascelles reentered the frame at the expense of central defender Federico Fernández. Similarly, Benítez also maintained a back three, completely matching Emery’s 3-4-3 formation.
All twenty-two outfield players, depicted in a situation where Arsenal had the ball.
Arsenal’s early progression issues
Newcastle’s intent from the beginning was strong and aggressive. The midfield was very active in their attempts to close out space and pressurize Arsenal players. As they did for the lion’s share of the match, they sat deep in a 5-4-1 formation, without giving away any time on the ball when Arsenal had possession in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. As Arsenal focused a lot of their attacking play down the left side, it enabled Miguel Almirón – Newcastle’s left-sided midfielder, to tuck in and help narrow the gaps between each midfielder, subsequently congesting those spaces.
The very early signs were quite positive for Arsenal as the inside forwards were picking up the ball freely when peeling wide in front of the wing-backs. However, once play was firmly in Newcastle’s own half, it was a different story entirely.
More often than not, Mesut Özil would drift across from the right in order to link with Iwobi and provide an extra option in the center of the pitch. Whenever that happened, Alexandre Lacazette shifted further back across, in order to provide some kind of link to the right wing-back, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, should there have been a need for a switch. It also placed the Frenchman in a better position to make runs off of the center-backs.
The main issues arose when the two inside forwards dropped too far deep simultaneously. Against such congested conditions, it resulted in stale ball circulation outside of Newcastle’s defensive organization, without any signs of penetration. Left back Sead Kolašinac – one of Arsenal’s most prolific creators this season – was comfortably marked out of the game and had no room to make runs from out-to-in to get in behind Newcastle’s right back DeAndre Yedlin. This was mostly because Arsenal’s inside forwards far too frequently vacated the left halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. which meant Florian Lejeune could block that channel without being drawn out of position.
Arsenal struggled to break through the Newcastle block because of their poor positional structure.
So, with the wing-backs comfortably marked out of the game, the inside forwards crowded around the ball on the outside of the block, with Lacazette nowhere to be seen on that side, leaving a huge disconnect.
Newcastle’s tactics when they won the ball were quite simple, really – just aim long. Unai Emery’s side have struggled to cope with balls into the channel all season long, so it played into Newcastle’s hands perfectly. A negative aspect of this, however, was that they had no possession-based relief. The attackers were too committed to the last line to be able to drop in, receive and circulate the ball. And, since the shape stretched so drastically upon turnovers of the ball, Arsenal’s dissimilarly close-knit shape around the ball was effective in counterpressing and reclaiming possession.
The closest Arsenal came to scoring inside the opening period of the match was with an Aaron Ramsey disallowed goal from a corner kick routine. More significantly, though, the corner came from Ramsey’s sweeping diagonal ball into Lacazette, who had made a run in the back of the far-sided center-back.
Arsenal begin to find solutions through Ramsey and Lacazette
Both Ramsey and Lacazette proved to be the key that would unlock Newcastle’s stubborn setup. The two players’ involvements acted as a warning sign in the twenty-seventh minute when Iwobi, from the right, combined with Ramsey before Lacazette acted as a wall to draw open the space and to also bounce passes off of. The move eventually worked its way across, through the lines and into the feet of Kolašinac. The Bosnian’s dangerous whipped delivery then came close to finding the head of Lacazette.
In the meantime, Newcastle continued to test Arsenal’s backline with their direct approach. With Lejeune being afforded enough time, he punted the ball high and long as Ayoze Pérez and Salomón Rondón both made darting runs in behind. Were it not for an incorrect offside call, either of them might well have been played through on goal, as they both were able to beat an unsteady and uncoordinated Arsenal back three.
Only ninety seconds on and the hosts did acquire the lead, with Ramsey and Lacazette at the heart of the move once again. For once, Arsenal played it wide with all the players in their assigned positions within the Newcastle block. As a result, they forced adjustments positionally from the opposition’s defense and so, when the ball came back out, Ramsey’s movement from deep to push up between the lines was welcomed by a slightly more open channel in midfield. The Welshman’s inventive flick-on for Lacazette was a favor quickly returned, albeit with some fortune, as the ball presented itself for Ramsey inside the box. With his weaker foot, he guided it through a crowd of bodies, along the ground and across to the far post and in it went. After the opener, these kinds of situations continued to flow at either end, as the opening half came to a close.
On the cusp of half-time, Ramsey’s advancing movements from deep came into play again with him joining the transition attack. His involvement subsequently pulled Lejeune out of his position, opening the channel for Özil to run into. Forced to go back by the goalkeeper, Kolašinac then set up Lacazette whose sharp turn-and-shoot effort was stopped by an unbelievable block on the line.
Just before that, Rondón won a mid-air tussle to get the better of Sokratis and worked an opening in behind. Despite Pérez being well-placed, but still somewhat marked, across from him, he decided to take the chance on for himself but he snatched at an all-too-quickly-taken shot.
1-0 was a boring score line
In a game like this, Benítez was smart enough to see that he had frustrated the hosts to a large extent and that his side were one successful attack away from drawing level. So, he remained coy. For a good portion of the second half, nothing changed in the overall pattern of the match, in fact, everything had seemingly come to a standstill.
Arsenal held a steady flow of possession without much fear of the pressure still being applied by Newcastle. The small highlight came through Özil, who repeated a smooth piece of linkup play that he had pulled off in the first half. Asking for the ball inside from the flanks, he dummied it and let it run for Lacazette before quickly spinning in behind in order to provide an open option against the grain of the Newcastle backline, which had no time to react.
The only notable change came when Aubameyang replaced Iwobi, a change that brought back the 3-4-1-2 setup as seen against Rennes. Although this did frequently merge back into a 3-4-3 formation, as the two strikers compensated positionally for Özil’s free roaming movements.
Even though they were still just a goal behind, the intensity on Newcastle’s side had dipped. Because of this, Lacazette managed to receive easily off of his marker and through the midfield line. Flicking it around the corner, he and Aubameyang combined. Auba’s header played his French counterpart in behind, past Lascelles. Delicately, Lacazette lobbed the ball over onrushing Martin Dúbravka’s head to seal the three points.
Such was the uneventfulness of the clash between these two sides that the overall shot count of ten was the second lowest in a single Premier League match since the 2009/10 season.
This win for Unai Emery means his side enters the top three for the very first time this season. Now leading the pack of four in the hunt for the remaining top four spots, the manager can be pleased with the growing confidence that his side are forming.
Newcastle cannot feel too hard done by, nor can they feel too disappointed. Winning at the Emirates Stadium has been unfamiliar territory for every bottom-fourteen side these past two seasons and their survival status looks to be well in check.
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